When Don Bosco put loving kindness at the heart of his way of working he was following a long tradition. Buddhism uses the word “metta” for loving kindness. The original Judaic scripture uses the word “chesed” (pronounced hessed) and even Homer, writing in about 800 BCE, used the word “agape” which was later adopted by Christians to describe loving kindness. This cardinal virtue of the Catholic Church, often described as charity, is a natural healer, a builder of relationships and a sign of God’s love alive in people. So isn't it surprising that such a vital virtue is under threat in our culture and even in our family lives?
Our culture favours the rugged, independent individual, the soloist hero who needs no other person. Our schools can favour such a strong focus on self-development that kindness is overshadowed by personal success. The business world takes a narrow view of work and measures the profit and loss of every action leaving kindness in the shadows as an optional by-product of the workplace. Those who help others are often seen as “soft”. Helping a friend in the school yard, for example, will often draw jeers before praise from other pupils. Empathy is being overwhelmed by competition and success and kindness could become a forgotten virtue.
But just because kindness is in the shadows does not mean that it is absent, far from it. Our experience is full of acts of random kindness that make life worth living. Motorist breaking down on the road, people short of bus fare and involved in accidents all witness to the existence of a web of loving kindness beneath the surface of our busy lives. Here is just one example:
At a football game between Millwall and Portsmouth, I was drunk as usual. A policewoman was ushering us fans back towards the station when she saw me staggering and went to arrest me for being drunk. Seeing that I was not disorderly, she asked if I was OK. I said: "Yes, fine, just having a good time." She said it didn't look like much fun and asked whether I drank often. I replied: "Every day" and I cried.
She held my arm gently and told me to stop drinking. Life was too good to drink every day, she told me. She said I looked too good to be a drunk and was too good a man to die young. The policewoman looked at me with pity and a kindness that made me cry again and think. Two months or so later I got sober. I haven't had a drink in 17 years.
These acts of kindness seed our lives with hope and yet they rarely make their way into the newspapers that prefer to sell themselves on fear and disaster. Even in our conversations we tend to focus on what went wrong during the day and are less likely to name and celebrate the goodness we have received. We focus on fear and in so doing we depart from the preventive system of Don Bosco and lose ourselves in a network of fear that Don Bosco described as the repressive system. That repressive system, operating in schools, workplaces and in families airbrushes kindness from life and leaves us all poorer as a result.
Yet psychology tells us that loving kindness activates the same parts of our brain that sex and chocolate stimulate! Not only that, kindness reduces the effects of ageing, depression and immune system strength.[ii] It seems that even psychology has woken up to the benefits of loving kindness and wants us to focus more on that part of life because, as another psychologist has said:
“it will make you a better human being and create a better society overall”
So whilst being kind to others has seriously positive effects on an individual, it can also create a stronger sense of belonging and of community. The second part will only be true if we learn to focus on the positive, the kindness and understanding we experience each day.
That means noticing that kindness has been shown, remembering that experience and perhaps talking about it later. That remembering of loving kindness brings it from below our personal radar and allows us to share it with family and community. In time we will learn to see loving kindness and share it more easily with others and perhaps resist the competitive fear that stalks many of our lives. Don Bosco created a space called the oratory which was safe from the harshness of the streets around a chaotic area of Turin. Within he created a home, a playground, a school and church for young people. It was a school of kindness where the young people themselves received kindness and learnt to give it in equal measure.
Today that oratory atmosphere is needed more than ever so that every family, school and workplace can become a seedbed of loving kindness. Kindness is not for wimps- it takes courage to be kind because it makes you vulnerable. You may be laughed at or exploited or even attacked. Yet kindness challenges our individualised culture and can transform it from within. This is especially true for those who carry authority in the family, the school or the workplace. Terse, top-down instructions tend to create repression and resistance whereas kindness creates community. With community comes energy, self-sacrifice and healing. With repression resistance and fragmentation are the long term results.
Don Bosco’s spirituality challenges every culture to build life around loving kindness. Partly that is because it works- it brings people to life. But more importantly Don Bosco realised from his early experience that in giving and receiving kindness he was in touch with the love that moves the world which Christians call The Father. Don Bosco saw this Fatherly love everywhere and in the most ordinary acts of kindness, smiles and gestures of understanding. Recognising that God was so close allowed Don Bosco to be cheerful and optimistic about even the most wayward young people.
Ten tips for putting kindness at the centre of your life
- 1. At the end of the day remember the good things that have happened.
- 2. Allow yourself to be cared for and praised by others and say thank you.
- 3. Notice how good and patient people are around you even if they sometimes aren’t kind.
- 4. When people get into a moaning session distract the focus to make it more hopeful
- 5. Tell people you appreciate them and praise them.
- 6. Don’t let your timetable become so rigid that you can’t help out a friend.
- 7. Forgive other people for not being perfect and trust them with a fresh start.
- 8. Risk being kind to someone who seems a bit scary.
- 9. Pray for those who are having a hard time
- 10. Be gentle and kind to yourself when things go wrong
A A Buddhist Prayer for Kindness